What Must I do to be Saved
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13NKJV
Question 153 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?” It gives the answer, “That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.” Last week we considered the only way sinners can escape the punishment that every sin deserves – God’s unmitigated and infinite wrath – which is in the salvation purchased for them by the blood of Jesus Christ. Today we look at what sinners must do to receive that salvation.
It is important to recognize that today’s question is not asking how a sinner is justified before a holy God. If it were, the answer would simply be, “By faith alone.” Nor is it asking how God saves sinners, for then the answer would be, “By grace alone,” or “Through Christ alone.” Today’s question is focusing not on the cause of our salvation but on the effect. We know that God saves sinners and converts them to Himself by His sovereign power, but those sinners saved by grace will and must do certain things if they are truly the objects of that gracious power. God is the ultimate cause of our salvation, but by His grace every saved sinner is active in receiving and living it out. Thus, here the Catechism is not talking about the work of God in ordaining, accomplishing, or even in applying salvation, but it is addressing the response God requires from those who would be saved.
In the wisdom of God many of the benefits procured for sinners by the righteous life and atoning death of Jesus Christ are received through things that sinners must do. These required actions do not earn salvation. In and of themselves they do not make us any less sinful or more righteous in God’s sight. Jesus earned all of our salvation, and in the gospel God promises to give that salvation to sinners who do not deserve it, but only as they do certain things that God commands. Ultimately, every one of these required acts are gifts procured and given to God’s elect entirely by His grace in His time. So that even faith and repentance are said to be God’s gifts to graciously and monergistically regenerated sinners (see Eph. 2:4-10; Acts 5:31; 11:18). Yet the reality that God grants faith and repentance to sinners does not change the fact that those sinners themselves must believe and repent. We believe in Jesus and repent from sins only by the grace of God, who in regeneration gives us a new nature that will believe and repent, but we actually and actively believe and repent. The Holy Spirit does not do it for us! And it is only through the exercise of this God-given faith and repentance, and the other means of grace appointed by Christ, that Christians are saved from God’s wrath and curse.
The verses at the head of this article clearly state the twin truths that though our salvation is accomplished entirely by the grace of Jesus Christ, we must do what God has commanded in order to live out the salvation that God is working into us. The gospel promises eternal life to unworthy sinners exclusively through the merits of Jesus Christ, but the gospel also commands “Repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance,” (Acts 26:20). Whenever someone trusts totally in God’s grace and mercy, offered solely in Christ, for salvation, they will most certainly be saved. But they will just as certainly live a new life of obedient service to their new Lord. They know their service is laden with sin, far from perfect, and cannot earn them one drop of forgiveness from God, but they also know Christ commands their service and they will not be saved without it! If Jesus is your Savior, He will be your Lord, for if He is not your Lord, He cannot be your Savior. What shall we say to these things? Let us join in prayer with the great fifth century church father Aurelius Augustine, “God, command us whatever you will, and grant to us whatever You command.”